Mhlnews 5112 Mhl Editorial Promo

Prevent the Horrors a Fire Marshal Sees

Aug. 7, 2014
You don’t need a fire for a fire marshal to be in your face. All you need is a forklift and a poorly trained operator.

When we posted a video gallery showing lift trucks lifting other lift trucks (with operators in them), I figured these situations were crazy enough to be unusual. Then I heard from Richard Keyworth. This former fire marshal has seen far dumber and deadlier things.

Keyworth retired from the Elk Grove Village, Ill., Fire Department after 31 plus years of service. His station was responsible for the safety of a lot of industrial real estate. Most noteworthy of all the square footage under his watch was his community’s Industrial Park. Adjacent to O'Hare International Airport, the Elk Grove Village Industrial Park is reputed to be the largest in the U.S., with more than 3,700 businesses located within its 5.4-square-miles.  Those businesses range in size from 1,500 sq.-ft. to 1.4 million sq.-ft. under roof in one building. Guess how many lift trucks work on all that square footage.

During his fire department years that number was north of 25,000, according to a survey he did at the time. As you can imagine, based on the carnage OSHA reports every year, this region did more than its part contributing to it. Here are a few of the more common incidents Keyworth shared with me:

A lift truck operator loading a truck comes out of a trailer in reverse, onto the dock, spins around to go forward, slides off the dock and lands with the truck on top of him.

An operator on a stand-up truck puts a load in the high racking then comes out into the aisle at full throttle—backing into the opposite side’s rack and crushing his chest. Operators in this kind of situation are usually standing on a dead man floor plate, meaning the truck would continue to crush them until a coworker found them.

It sometimes seemed that every forklift driver was a cousin of Dale Earnhardt..."

Then there were those forklift-lifting-forklift situations, where the top truck slips off the forks of the bottom one because the driver of the bottom truck leaned forward on the tilt control or the top one became off-center and fell.  Keyworth actually witnessed a triple lift once. These geniuses were trying to install an air conditioning unit on a roof. He used all his power as a fire marshal to issue a cease and desist order.

“It sometimes seemed that every forklift driver was a cousin of Dale Earnhardt,” Keyworth told me. “We actually found that in some of our large warehouses they had striped lines on the floor for drag races.”

Then there was the jousting.

“It was 3:30 in the morning at one of our many carpet warehouses,” he recalled. “Two operators were bored and were jousting with the pole attachments of their forklifts. Unfortunately the pole on one truck went between the mast and the upright of the other and through the chest of the operator. His heart was still fibrillating on the end of the pole once he was impaled. The other operator kept carrying on because they did this every night after the trucks were loaded and they were bored. They had a tally sheet on the wall which indicated that this practice had been going on for quite a period of time.  When the warehouse manager arrived on scene I questioned him about these jousting tournaments. At that point he had no idea that an employee had lost his life.  The manager said they had been holding tournaments for a number of years. When I explained what happened he couldn’t believe it.”

When the OSHA area director arrived on the scene she asked Keyworth if this industrial park ever had other injuries or fatalities involving forklifts.

“She almost fainted when I told her several thousand a year,” he said.

Since then the Fire Prevention Inspection Program in Elk Grove Village has gone from staffing 12 inspectors down to 1.5.  The park has more distribution center than manufacturing businesses, and Keyworth guesses the use of powered industrial trucks has grown as well. In the meantime, OSHA staffing has also shrunk—and it was small enough at the time Keyworth’s OSHA area director almost had her fainting spell. I suppose that’s why she asked Keyworth to call her whenever he discovered horror stories like the one detailed here. He suggested that she assign two of her inspectors to his two industrial fire stations and they could do ride-alongs with his crew.  She said she didn’t have the personnel to do that.

So if your local fire marshal doesn’t have the staff to keep your operators in line, and your local OSHA office doesn’t have the staff to question your operators when they’re out of line, who does that leave to stop the jousting, triple forklifting and other mayhem going on when you’re not looking?

Look in your local mirror.

(See our video gallery on the Top 10 Dumbest Forklift Stunts HERE.)